The development of a COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most highly discussed and anticipated medical events across the globe. More than 40 teams, from government agencies to pharmaceutical companies, are working in overdrive to develop and test a vaccine for use by 2021.
News of the stability of the SARS-CoV-2 genome increased anticipation for the vaccine even more by suggesting that the vaccine could potentially protect us from the coronavirus permanently.
Behavior of the SARS-CoV-2
SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus responsible for the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent global panic.
After analyzing 1,000 samples of the coronavirus, scientists like Johns Hopkins University’s Peter Thielen determined that COVID-19 doesn’t mutate as quickly as other common viruses. Thielen compared the strains of coronavirus that infected residents of Wuhan, China to the strains that have infected U.S. citizens and found an average of four to 10 genetic differences between the strains.
This is dramatically different from the influenza virus, which “mutates about once every 10 days across its genome,” according to Trevor Bedford, a scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Though many of these mutations don’t have an overall effect on the virus, they cause enough significant change to undermine people’s immunity to the flu. This is why a new flu shot must be developed every single year. It also explains why the flu vaccine isn’t 100% effective.
All viruses mutate over time with tiny errors that interrupt the virus’ genetic code and break it up into various strains. However, unlike the flu, the coronavirus mutates so slowly that scientists can predict its behavior from year to year.
Could Future Vaccines Offer Long-Term Protection?
Thanks to the stability SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated, scientists feel confident that its slow mutations will help the virus remain nearly the same over time.
As a result, Theilen explains, “the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine.”
Doctors will be able to provide one single vaccine that potentially protects against COVID-19 for a lifetime, similar to vaccines for the chicken pox or measles.
Vaccines in Development
Given the expected efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine, it’s no wonder that pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are working as fast as possible to develop the world’s first vaccination.
Johnson & Johnson plans to begin human testing of its experimental vaccine in September 2020, with the goal of achieving authorization for emergency use of the vaccine by early 2021.
In a large-scale effort to reach its deadline, Johnson & Johnson has invested more than $1 billion in partnership with the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The pharmaceutical giant has also expanded its manufacturing capacity with additional sites in the U.S. Once its vaccination is tested and approved by the FDA, Johnson & Johnson will have the means to produce and distribute the vaccine rapidly.
Moderna, meanwhile, began testing its new vaccine on humans on Monday, March 30. According to a statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Moderna’s trial was “launched in record speed” by using existing research on SARS and MERS, other coronavirus variants.
With more than 40 other teams also dedicating their resources to developing a vaccine for COVID-19, Americans are likely to have access to this long-term protection within 12 to 18 months.